By Christopher Byrne
In the city neighborhood where I grew up in Wilmington, Delaware, there were more than 53 kids between the ages of 4 and 12 within the two-block area that was our “base.” There were no organized activities. No little league. The occasional Boy or Girl Scout. Our lives were defined by school, church and home, and though they were different for many of us, we all came together in the neighborhood. There were groups and cliques and subsets, but for the most part, though parents were never far away, we were on our own.
Our games were pick-up games. Rules were negotiated. No adults told us how to play or what to play. This, to us and our parents, was normal. The inevitable conflicts that arose in games were resolved by us, and it was very rare that an adult ever got involved in a resolution.
One of the most hotly contested elements of any game was the “do-over,” a chance to take back a choice or a turn or to try again. “No do-overs” was pretty much the law of the land for us. If you clipped a ball badly or slipped on the grass, that was the way it was. The only opportunity for do-overs was when outside forces prevailed—say a car turned onto the street just after you hit the ball, or a dog came and took the ball or decided that your run to whatever was designated as first base was the perfect time to jump up on you, giving an opponent a chance to tag you out. Sometimes we argued. And sometimes we were upset by the outcomes, but the game went on. More importantly, the kid that asked for a do-over was diminished in our eyes.
With adult eyes, I see that “no do-overs” was a terrific rule. We learned, within the context of our games, that our actions have consequences, that fate is unpredictable and that you’d better give it your best shot because…who knows? Most importantly, this rule taught us to accept the consequences of our actions.
In recent weeks, I’ve been fascinated by the number of reports on television and heart-wrenching interviews from people who are, essentially, asking for do-overs. In one case, a family whose child was being treated for an eating disorder found that they were stuck with an enormous bill because their health insurance wouldn’t pay for it. There was a tearful interview with a family, saying their financial lives were devastated. There was the requisite vilification of the insurance company and a TV anchor trying to portray the company as unfeeling. Yet, the spokesman for the insurance company could only say, “That’s not the policy that they bought.”
I’ve been reading online reviews of companies where companies are trashed virulently. Yet, as I read, I saw that in the case of a car rental company, the consumer hadn’t read the contract and blamed the company for his or her own choices.
The constant defense in both these cases was that the stipulations were “in small print.” The implication is that a company is trying to hoodwink a consumer with font size. Sorry, to me that doesn’t fly. How does that excuse the person who made a bad choice? Is it a company’s fault if you don’t read a contract and understand what you’re signing?
I could go on for hours. But I’ll spare you.
I do ask you to look at these “protect the consumer” reports and notice how often the “wronged consumer” has made a gamble that would be advantageous to them in the short term—lower health insurance premium, passing on rental car insurance—but that has ended up biting them on the behind because of something unforeseen or because they didn’t take responsibility for themselves and the consequences of their actions.
Sorry, no do-over.
I don’t for a moment minimize the hardship of a situation nor am I insensitive to someone’s tragedy or misfortune. However, how much healthier is it to acknowledge that you took a risk and you lost? You make your choices. No do-overs.
These are the kinds of lessons that play teaches us, and the role of play is to prepare us for life. Whether it’s a Candy Land game or baseball, we don’t win every time. The idea is not to blame outside forces but to take full responsibility for ourselves and our actions, to manage what we can and try our best to respond to things beyond our control when they happen—and they will.
Kids who repeatedly whined for do-overs in our games didn’t last very long because in our kid-controlled world, there weren’t parents forcing us to cave on our principles. We didn’t have a lot of patience for someone who wouldn’t really play the game—accepting the good outcomes or bad. And, after all, if you lost today, you could always play tomorrow.
We do kids no favors when we don’t let them lose at a game or face the consequences of their choices. Some parents think that the self-esteem of their little precious is the most important thing. Yet self-esteem doesn’t come from having the way constantly smoothed or from an outside force (parent) taking away all the “bad” consequences and leaving only the good. Self-esteem comes from overcoming challenges you didn’t think you could, from finding inner resources that you didn’t know you had and developing an ability to take whatever life throws at you and keep going on.
Let our kids learn that through play and in the context of games and peers while they’re kids. Our role is to let them know that they can keep going despite the setback, not take the setback away.
If we condition kids to expect do-overs, they’ll be mightily surprised. A well-meaning parent can make that happen. The “real world” is not so accommodating.